A new state law in New Jersey to curb bullying in their schools is being called the toughest legislation against bullying in the nation, and it’s receiving both support and apprehension.
The new law, called the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights was motivated by public uproar over the suicide of Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, almost a year ago. It requires all public schools to adopt comprehensive anti-bullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”) to increase staff training, and to comply with strict deadlines for reporting episodes.
Each school is required to designate an anti-bullying specialist, whose job it is to investigate all complaints of bullying in their school, and each district must appoint an anti-bullying coordinator. Additionally, every effort made by districts will be evaluated by the State Education Department, which will post grades on its website. According to superintendents in the state, educators who refuse to comply could lose their licenses.
While many parents and educators are more than willing to do what is necessary to control bullying both in schools and online, some school board members and superintendents across the state claim that this law, which is slated to take effect tomorrow, goes way too far. They also complain that they have not been given the additional resources it will take to meet the demands this law will place on their schools.
Richard G. Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators said, “I think this has gone well overboard. Now we have to police the community 24 hours a day. Where are the people and the resources to do this?”
In general, schools are using their guidance counselors and social workers to take on the role of anti-bullying specialists. While this may seem like the best alternative, it raises concerns as to whether they have either the time or experience to investigate every complaint of harassment or intimidation as well as filling out the detailed reports that are required, all the while fulfilling all their usual job-related obligations.
An additional concern of some administrators is whether making the schools legally responsible for bullying both in and out of school will make them more vulnerable to complaints and possible lawsuits when students and parents are not satisfied with the outcome of their investigations.
To prepare for the implementing of this law, thousands of school employees spent part of their summer attending training sessions, and more than 200 districts purchased a package compiled by a consulting firm that includes a 100-page manual and a DVD. Cost of the package? $1,295!
Some of those who attended left feeling, like Meg Duffy, a little overwhelmed with the mandates of this new law. A counselor at the Hillside Intermediate School in Bridgewater, she said that there had been an increase in cyberbullying at her school last year, with students texting and/or posting mean comments about other students. These are the kinds of situations this new bill would demand that schools get involved with as well as bullying at school.
Districts are also required under this law to appoint a safety team including teachers, other staff members, and parents at each school. Their job would be to review complaints. It also requires principals to begin investigations of reports of bullying within one school day of the bullying episode. Superintendents need to provide reports to Trenton two times a year which contains details of all of the bullying episodes their district deals with each year.
One district that is taking this law very seriously is the East Hanover district. They have partnered with Crimestoppers, a program of the Morris County sheriff’s office, with the intent of making the reporting of bullying easier. But the fact that Crimestoppers will accept anonymous text messages, calls, or tips to its website is a little frightening. These anonymous tips will be forwarded to schools and local police officials.
This district is spending $3,000 to train its staff, including coaches, cafeteria workers, custodians, and substitute teachers. Joseph L. Ricca, the district’s superintendent, said, “We really want to be able to implement this new law and achieve results.” But he added, that the law’s “sheer scope may prove to be a bit unwieldy and may require some practical refinement.”
“The whole push is to incorporate the anti-bullying process into the culture,” Lucila Hernandez, a school psychologist, said. “We’re empowering children to use the term ‘bullying’ and to speak up for themselves and for others.”
At North Hunterdon High School, students will be learning that if they see bullying, they have a responsibility to try to stop it because there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.
Dr. Margaret Dolan, the Westfield superintendent expressed concern that, due to this new law, both parents and students may find it easier to call minor disagreements bullying, instead of trying to find ways to work out their differences.
“Kids have to learn to deal with conflict,” she said. “What a shame if they don’t know how to effectively interact with their peers when they have a disagreement.”
Now, I must admit, as much as I advocate developing stronger anti-bullying policies in our schools, this law seems so big and so unmanageable that I fear it is going to create chaos. There is simply no way that every single reported incident of bullying is going to be handled within a day by already overworked principals, and that superintendents will be able to find the time to fill out the detailed reports on every incident that is investigated. These expectations are unreasonable when no additional resources are being provided.
The other huge problem I see with this law is the reporting, just as Dr. Dolan said, of every frivolous disagreement between students, which would further inundate the specialists and principals in an avalanche of reports to be investigated, making it difficult or impossible to get to the serious incidents of bullying that really do require intervention.
Finally, the idea of taking anonymous tips is extremely problematic. I am sure that some kids will use this opportunity as it is intended; to report incidents of bullying that they would be afraid to admit to publicly. But you can’t tell me that some wouldn’t view this as the perfect opportunity to get back at someone they harbor a grudge against by calling in a bogus tip just to get that person in trouble, or maybe even to take the spotlight off of their own bullying.
I am all for tougher anti-bullying policies in our schools, and I believe the intent of this law is commendable. I just fear that it is such an overwhelming venture that the likelihood of its success is bleak. I would hope that, if it does prove to be too wide in its scope, future revisions might make it more manageable and more successful.
Good luck New Jersey! I would not be upset if you prove me wrong!